Summer 2006

Editorial Pages: Why Courage Is Hard to Find

The Star Tribune published strong editorials about Bush administration truth telling when few other papers did, and an editor there explores some reasons why.

By Jim Boyd

I love what the word "newspaperman" — or "newspaperwoman" — implies: someone who knows a lot but lacks pretension; someone who knows how to take names and is unafraid of kicking backsides; someone who knows truth will prove ever elusive but is damn determined to pursue it. The quintessential newspaperman for me was the late Lars-Erik Nelson. He wrote for the New York Daily News and did his best backside kicking in, of all places, The New York Review of Books. No one escaped his verbal scalpel if they deserved it, including The New York Times's treatment of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. I really miss him.

That kind of journalistic courage is difficult to find today. I'm not talking about physical courage, which many good journalists display daily in Iraq and other dangerous places. I'm talking mental toughness, willingness to risk. We have very few Nelsons, few I.F. Stones, few David Halberstams and Neil Sheehans. People I consider courageous are Murray Waas at the National Journal; Dan Froomkin at washingtonpost.com and niemanwatchdog.org; Warren Strobel and several of his colleagues at the Knight Ridder Washington bureau (soon to be the McClatchy Washington bureau); Walter Pincus and Dana Priest of the Post. And, of course, Helen Thomas.

But it remains an exclusive list. The Bush administration arguably combines the worst elements of the Nixon, Johnson and Hoover administrations in one. And yet most of the mainstream press has handled it with kid gloves, most powerfully on Iraq. For me, the entire problem was captured in Vice President Dick Cheney's appearance on "Meet the Press" in September 2003. Cheney fed Tim Russert one lie and half-truth after another. The next day, editorial writers at every newspaper in the country had enough material (easily available) to do an extended truth-telling editorial. In my newspaper, the Star Tribune, a devastating critique filled the entire editorial column. No other paper did anything similar, though Cheney came in for sharp criticism on some of the better blogs.

Why were we, in Minneapolis, the only ones in the mainstream media to make an effort at calling Cheney's words to account? I'm not sure I know, but when the Downing Street memo hit the British press, we again devoted most of an op-ed page to printing its full text. To my knowledge, we were the only paper to do that. Why? Again, not sure I know, but the list is lengthy of truth-telling editorials and op-ed pieces that can be found pretty much exclusively on our pages.

Doing this was uncomfortable. Right-wing bloggers took after us with all barrels blasting. Radio host Hugh Hewitt attempted to get our readers to cancel their subscriptions. A United States senator warned folks above my pay grade (as deputyeditorial page editor) that we were becoming a laughingstock in Washington. My publisher, concerned with the same sort of circulation problems confronting almost every newspaper, was extremely uneasy, as were his bosses at McClatchy corporate headquarters in Sacramento. We felt besieged.

From my perch in the Midwest, I've tried to develop several explanations for the lack of courage I've seen displayed on so many editorial pages and in so many news sections:

  1. Newt Gingrich's strategy worked. His kind just kept throwing that label "liberal" at us until we got spooked. It began to sound like the "N" word. Whenever we printed an opinion or reported facts that were uncomplimentary to the administration, we'd get that label thrown at us. So we backed off generally. And when we did get into controversial waters, we used the old "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other" approach: Three sources said the sun will rise tomorrow. Reached for comment, an administration source said it wouldn't. You make up your mind.

  2. Access. With the Washington press corps, my view from afar suggests many have sold pieces of their journalistic souls for access. They so value getting the good stuff from people like Scooter Libby and Karl Rove that they dare not do anything — including good journalism — that would put that access in jeopardy. The means become the end.

  3. Comfort and celebrity. Life's good, the money flows freely, the chance to rub elbows with the in-crowd is sweet. So you become some version of (name any cable news anchor): inane, dense and willing to invest great energy in the story of who killed a blue-eyed white girl on spring break.

  4. Economics. This is the one that really pains me. Wall Street demands that newspapers make obscene profits; if they don't, their share price will drop, and soon the corporate offices will be redecorated for someone new. As I write, final touches are being applied to the deal that will see Knight Ridder disappear, most of it into McClatchy, which owns the Star Tribune. It stinks that one greedy geezer could force Knight Ridder out of existence because it wasn't making enough profit for him. With the nation politically polarized, with Newt's "liberal media" message deeply embedded in conservative heads, with readership declining (cause or effect?), corporate leaders in media companies want above all to avoid offending people. Their bias toward the local, the cute, the noncontroversial isn't ideological; it's a pocketbook issue.

  5. Reasonableness. Editorial writers like to engage on the level of reason. But that doesn't work when you are dealing with ideologues to whom reason is an inconvenience. They ignore it. In some circumstances, to be effective an editorial writer must get down in the muck and have it out, which means being willing to talk truth to power in blunt and, on occasion, ungentlemanly terms. It doesn't always feel good to do that, but it is necessary.

I don't know what's to become of our beloved craft, so critical to the proper functioning of democracy. As individuals, we can't control that. But what we can control is the stiffness in our spines. More of us must begin to demonstrate real journalistic courage, and that means going after what is true no matter how uncomfortable this pursuit becomes for those in power or for us.

To do this, we need support from those who believe as we do in the value of truth-seeking journalism. At the Star Tribune, last year we won an award from The American Academy of Diplomacy, which is this nation's leading diplomatic establishment, for our forceful editorializing on Bush administration foreign policy. In its citation, the academy recognized our exhaustive research, our willingness to tell truth to power, and our dedication to nonpartisanship. The academy was saying we done good. It was a gutsy thing to say. Wherever journalists demonstrate courage, we need folks like the members of the academy, willing to stand up and say, unequivocally, "Well done, newspaperman."

Jim Boyd, a 1980 Nieman Fellow, is deputy editorial page editor at the Star Tribune, Minneapolis. He has held that position for 24 years. His writing now tends to focus on international affairs but, he says, like most editorial writers, he will take on almost any topic, if necessary.


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